British Columbia

Polygamist welcomes new child bride probe

Winston Blackmore, one of the leaders of Bountiful, B.C., says he welcomes an investigation into allegations young girls from the polygamous community were taken to the United States to be wed.
Winston Blackmore, the religious leader of the polygamous community of Bountiful near Creston, B.C., leaves the newly built community centre. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press) (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

One of the leaders of Bountiful, B.C., Winston Blackmore, says he welcomes an investigation into allegations young girls from the polygamous community were taken to the United States to be wed.

Court documents allege eight girls between the ages of 12 and 18 were married off to American men between 2004 and 2006 – including three to jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

Blackmore leads one of two divided factions within Bountiful, an isolated community in southeastern B.C.'s Creston Valley, not far from the U.S. border. Residents practise a form of fundamentalist Mormonism, which, unlike the mainstream church, still condones polygamy.

The shocking allegations surfaced at court hearings into Canada's polygamy laws and have prompted a renewed criminal investigation by the RCMP. They appear to involve girls from the other side of the divided commune, led by James Oler.

Community divided into factions

Blackmore says he has only heard details of the alleged marriages — and the latest criminal investigation to target the community — from news reports. His side of the community has very little contact with Oler's, which is thought to be more traditional and strict.

Mothers and daughters enjoy a ride in a sled in snowy Bountiful, B.C. (CBC)
"I heard about it from the media, I had not heard about it," Blackmore told The Canadian Press during a weekend interview, sitting inside a newly constructed building that contains a community centre and a prayer space.

"If they're investigating the story we read about, I think they should look into it and see what's happening there. If that is a fact, I'm really disturbed about that myself."

The alleged marriages took place between 2004 and 2006 and involved a total of nine girls — eight from Bountiful, who were married to American men, and a 16-year-old girl from the U.S., who was married to man from Bountiful and subsequently moved there.

Records produced in court stem from the sensational 2008 raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch, a polygamous compound run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — also known as the FLDS — near Eldorado, Texas.

Bountiful has about 1,000 residents who follow the same branch of fundamentalist Mormonism. Oler's faction is officially linked to the FLDS, while Blackmore's congregation split from that church nearly a decade ago.

The court documents allege three girls — two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old — were taken to the United States by their parents and married to jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs, who was in his late 40s and early 50s when the marriages occurred, is currently in a Texas jail awaiting trial on charges of sexual assault and bigamy.

Five other girls from Bountiful, between the ages of 16 and 18, were married to other American men. Oler was present for some of those so-called celestial marriages, the documents say, and he "personally delivered" some of the girls to be wed.

New investigation launched

The province's attorney general forwarded details of the allegations to the RCMP, which announced last week it had launched a new criminal investigation.

The Mounties have targeted the community several times in the past, most recently when Blackmore and Oler were each charged with practising polygamy in 2009.

Those charges were thrown out in court after a judge ruled the attorney general of the day, Wally Oppal, was wrong to appoint a new special prosecutor after previous prosecutors had decided against laying charges.

Blackmore, who has been fiercely critical of Oppal, said the case cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I think it's more than a witch hunt, and I think I'm not the only person who feels like that," said Blackmore, dressed in work overalls and wearing a black baseball hat.

Blackmore was charged with having 19 wives, but the court heard he's been married to at least two dozen women and has fathered more than 130 children. He declined to confirm those numbers.

The court has heard testimony from experts, former residents of polygamous communities and current plural wives, who have debated the alleged harms of polygamy. Closing arguments will begin late next month.

Oler's group is participating in the case, although his lawyer didn't address the new allegations when they came up in court last Friday. The lawyer hasn't responded for a call seeking comment on the RCMP investigation.

Blackmore is boycotting the constitutional hearings because he was denied government funding.

"I haven't been following it. I only heard one report on it, and that was almost by mistake," said  Blackmore.

"When they wanted us to participate in this reference, I was left with a choice: take care of family or interfere with this polygamy case. I have done what I feel like is the thing that any family person in Canada would have expected me to do, take care of my family."

Experts and former residents have told the court that polygamy is always harmful to women and children, inevitably leading to physical and sexual abuse, child brides, teen pregnancies and human trafficking between polygamous communities.

Blackmore categorically rejected those claims.

"I think that's not true, it's just not," he said. "You could make the same argument that monogamy is harmful to women and children, because of the statistics out there in relation to monogamous marriages."